FAIRBANKS ‚ Every December I look back at what I’ve reviewed over the course of the year and revisit my favorite books. This isn’t a “best of” list for 2017, but rather the things I read that stayed with me and that I’d recommend for gift giving or reading yourself if you haven’t yet.
Threadbare: Class and Crime in Urban Alaska
Mary Kudenov, Alaska Literary Series/University of Alaska Press, 2017, 136 pages, $15.95
Topping my personal list is “Threadbare” by Mary Kudenov, a collection of previously published essays that form a memoir about life in the part of Alaska one doesn’t find on TV shows or in promotional material for tourism.
Kudenov was born to an alcoholic mother and grew up poor in Haines and Moose Pass. As an adult she washed up in Anchorage where she lived in one of that city’s roughest neighborhoods. Her description of the dilapidated apartment building where she lived and where crime and violence were daily occurrences will humble and horrify well-heeled readers who think they have difficulties.
Eventually, Kudenov made her way into the University of Alaska Anchorage, ultimately earning an MFA in creative writing and then working to help others out of the circumstances she rose from. Her stories continue to haunt me months after I read them.
Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search
Russell A. Potter, McGill-Queens University Press, 2016, 280 pages, $35.96
Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition
Paul Watson, Norton, 2017, 384 pages, $27.95
The lost Franklin Expedition was one of the first things I learned of upon coming to the North, and it too has haunted my mind. The fate of the two ships and 129 men lost in a futile effort at discovering the Northwest Passage after leaving Britain in 1845 has obsessed thousands and launched endless searches — both public and private — that finally culminated in 2014 and 2016 respectively when the sunken Erebus and Terror were located.
Paul Watson’s “Ice Ghosts” details the early searches for the ships and then jumps to their discovery, noting that after more than a century-and-a-half of looking in the wrong place, the ships were found precisely where Inuit oral history had said all along they were.
“Finding Franklin” by Russel Potter covers similar territory adding accounts of searches by Americans and Canadians that Watson skips. Potter also examines the scant evidence left behind and the vexing questions it raises. But his best contribution to Franklin lore is his ability to capture better than any writer on the topic I’ve yet encountered how the story of Franklin and his men becomes an obsession that some people, he and I included, simply cannot let go of.
Jessica Goodfellow, Alaska Literary Series/University of Alaska Press, 2017, 80 pages, $14.95
Another expedition that ended horrifically was the group of 12 men who scaled Denali 50 years ago under the leadership of Joe Wilcox. Only five of them returned. Storm systems pummeled the mountain while the men were near the summit, trapping them for days. Several of the victims’s bodies were never recovered.
Poet Jessica Goodfellow lost an uncle she was too young to truly know in that calamity. Her collection “Whiteout” is an attempt at understanding both what transpired and the traumatic impact it had on her mother and other family members as they grappled and continue to grapple with the loss of a promising young man so central to their lives. They’ve mostly coped by saying nothing. Goodfellow breaks this silence, and one hopes that in so doing she helped her still grieving family to heal.
Breaking the Ice
Kieran Lynn, 62 pages, Oberon Books, 2017, $17.95
“Breaking the Ice” is the script for a satirical play about a scientist attending a meeting of the Arctic Council in Barrow. Frank Montgomery, sent to the gathering on short notice from England, steps out of his hotel for a cup of tea. That’s when all manner of havoc transpires. A shopkeeper gets in his face about the need for jobs in the north, a pair of inept eco-terrorists kidnap him but can’t decide what to do with him, an energy executive also gets a hold of him, a Native police officer takes him into custody, and Montgomery ultimately finds his way into the presence of a philosophy professor.
Through each of these encounters, British playwright Kieran Lynn deftly explores the conflicting interests all converging on the Arctic in a time of rapid climate change, and does so with that distinctively absurdist wit that the Brits have mastered. That he makes his own sympathies known without sermonizing is even more impressive. Alaskan theater companies need to stage this one.
Frank Turner Hollon, Dzanc Books, 2016, 232 pages, $15.95
In “Jamestown, Alaska,” protagonist Aaron Jennings, an author of trash fiction, travels north by mysterious invitation to write the history of a planned utopian community of the same name as the book. His journey there is surreal enough on its own, but upon arrival things only get stranger. Nothing is as it seems, nor as it should ever be.
Author Frank Turner Hollon is clearly influenced by the work of the great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, perfectly capturing Dick’s sense of paranoia and, like Dick so often did, diving down a constantly twisting wormhole where each turn leaves readers who think they’ve figured it out once again flummoxed. But where Dick’s nightmares were of the collectivist sort popular during the Cold War, Hollen finds equal cause for fear behind the libertarian utopianism widely dreamed of by many in the new millennium. He’s a worthy successor to Dick rather than just a mimicker.
Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son
Mary F. Ehrlander, University of Nebraska Press, 2017, 216 pages, $29.95
Finally, Fairbanks author Mary Ehrlander gets a nod for her biography of Walter Harper, the half-Athabascan assistant to Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck. Harper is best known as the first man to step onto the summit of Denali during Stuck’s famous 1913 expedition. But as Ehrlander shows, there was much more to Harper’s tragically short life (he died in the 1918 sinking of the Princess Sophia after departing Skagway).
Ehralnder explores the conditions faced by Interior Alaska Natives during the early infiltration of their lands by Americans, offers a much more nuanced and balanced assessment of the role Christianity played in this era than many modern writers understand, and provides rousing descriptions of weeks long dogsled trips in the depths of winter.
I have a huge stack for review in 2018. More to come.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be reached at email@example.com.